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ADVENTURES IN FOOD AND FITNESS

Berne's 40-year-old race has inspired generations of runners

Monday, August 5, 2013 - 12:01 am

It seemed impolite to ask, but I'm guessing Jack Shoaf wasn't exactly the star runner on either the Adams Central nor the John Brown University cross country teams.

“Jack and I, you look at us, we don't have that Kenyan runner's build,” joked my dad last weekend amid preparations for the 40th running of the Swiss Days Race in Berne.

But as the guy who came up with the idea for the race back in 1974, Shoaf has influenced generations of area runners, including me.

“That first race, we had maybe 30 people show up,” recalled my dad, , Charles Isch, the race co-founder and Jack's longtime running partner.

It was a 3-mile run — nobody did 5Ks back then — that started outside the First Bank of Berne, where both men worked for decades and which has been the official sponsor ever since. Dad poured the concrete post holders that still form the finish-line chute in our barn that summer, though computer-chip timing led to many changes since then.

They added a 10-mile race at one point in the 1970s, which didn't last, and a kids' 1-mile race, which did.

“From the beginning, I felt like it was important that the kids get the same kind of awards as the adults, to help build an interest in running,” Jack said.

Trophies and ribbons are awarded to the top 10 finishers in each age group, which generates interest as well as competition. When they switched to a 5K format, they incorporated a 1-mile “parade lap” that brings runners back by the crowd before sending them out on a country road.

“We wanted the race to be spectator-friendly, so that grandmas and grandpas, aunts and uncles can really see the runners in action,” Jack said.

“As many people who come out to watch, we could almost put bleachers up,” Dad added.

The race remains somewhat of a throwback in that it doesn't encourage walkers or offer much in the way of postrun goodies — just bananas and cups of water or McDonald's “orange drink” — though this year every finisher got a medal commemorating the 40th race.

But it also serves as a challenge, with a built-in time limit of 45 minutes or so before they reset the clock for the kids' race.

For years, as an increasingly overweight adult, I started every spring by training for the Swiss Days Race, if only in my mind. In 2010, after combining jogging with Weight Watchers, I finally sent in my entry form and finished in a respectable if unspectacular 32:15.

After that, my goal changed: Would it be possible to someday earn a ribbon? It was. Last year, I finished 10th in the 40-49 age group. This year, my sister won that ribbon, while I moved up to eighth.

In planning the hoopla for this year's event — which included a trophy display by 66-year-old Doug Bauman, one of two area runners who've finished all 40 races — the committee asked the co-founders to run the race for the first time in decades.

But it was not to be. Dad's knee problems are older than this year's champ, Norwell senior cross country star Brent Bales, and Jack, who's continued running into retirement, was nursing a swollen hamstring.

So when more than 500 runners and at least twice that many spectators lined up for last Saturday's race, both retired bankers were in their traditional positions: Dad at the starting line, pistol in hand, and Jack on his moped to escort the leaders.

In a way, it was fitting, because the Swiss Days Race has become a part of the community, bigger than any one or two people. Some families traditionally enter a dozen or more runners, many in specially themed T-shirts. This year, Dad and Jack stayed in the background as younger bank officials — many of whom grew up running the race, and in some cases, still do — passed out awards.

That focus on continuity is one reason this race has endured when many others have not, said longtime participant Mark Shorter, who made his annual trip from Kokomo and placed second to Bauman in the men's 60 and over age group.

“A lot of times, you'll have a really gung-ho race director, but then, when he fades out of the picture, the race falls apart,” said Shorter, longtime treasurer of the Kokomo Road Runners. He said he knows of only one race in Indiana that's been continuously operating longer: The Sam Costa Half Marathon in Carmel, now in its 44th year.

“It's hard to believe, isn't it?” said Jack, as he and Dad recalled favorite race memories.

“We've had some good runners over the years,” Dad noted.

Even in their prime, nobody would've ever put Dad and Jack in that category. They just loved running.

Thanks to the Swiss Days Race, now a lot of other people do, too.

Tanya Isch Caylor, a News-Sentinel copy editor, blogs on diet and fitness at www.90in9.wordpress.com. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.